State School Board attorney Patrick Lacy last week told the Prince William School Board that a recent ruling from State Attorney General Gerald Baliles does not require it to reveal the details of its contract with school superintendent Richard Johnson.
Baliles' six-page opinion said that "the substance of a contract must be reasonably identified." Baliles added that a provision containing a buy-out clause, which several official sources have said the contract contains, "must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act." However, Baliles said, there was nothing in the act that "prevents the School Board from disclosing the employment contract" if they choose to do so.
Lacy, who once served as the county School Board's attorney, told its members that he interpreted Baliles' statement that the "termination clause must be disclosed" to mean that the board has to disclose that a termination clause exists in a contract but that the board does not have to disclose specifics of a termination clause.
The board has been under pressure from local newspapers and citizens and parents groups to reveal the details of Johnson's four-year $68,500 contract, which includes a $9,000 raise and is also alleged to include a buy-out clause. The board approved the contract in a 5-2 vote in January. The board has declined to reveal the details of the contract, which will become effective July 1, because they say it is a personnel matter. One local newspaper has filed a formal request for a copy of the contract under the Freedom of Information Act and has been denied.
Del. Floyd Bagley (D-Prince William), who asked for Baliles opinion at the request of former county attorney Terrence Emerson, said he was "flabbergasted at what Lacy told the board."
After Lacy advised the board last week that its action in January, when it approved Johnson's contract, was "legal and proper," the board approved a resolution ratifying that approval. This was done, the board said, "to remove any possible ambiguity in the matter."
Maureen Caddigan, who voted against the original contract, citing "Johnson's insensitivity to the public," voted against the resolution in order to be consistent, she said later. Vice chairman George Mullin, who also voted no on the contract in January, left the room just before the resolution was made. He could not be reached for comment.
Although both Lacy and Johnson denied last week that there is a dollar figure in the clause, sources have said that the board will buy out the remainder of Johnson's contract if he is fired. Since board make-up is expected to change within the next two years because of the expiration of the terms of two members in 1986 and one in 1987, it is possible the four votes needed to retain Johnson will not be there, sources said. The termination clause was included in Johnson's contract at his request, they said. The new contract allows the board to terminate Johnson's employment with or without cause at any time during the next four years.
The board has given Johnson an overall B+ grade on his performance over the last four years. The board said that only his public relations style needed improvement.
Johnson's decision on school boundary changes and faculty transfers and dismissals have sparked strong community reaction. One of the most controversial decisions came last June when popular high school principal Philip Gainous was moved abruptly to another high school. Despite a petition signed by 3,000 parents, teachers and students, Johnson refused to change his position on the transfer. Gainous subsequently left Prince William and is now principal at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.